novella: a work of fiction that falls between two stools. Written by someone European (i.e. German, French, Austrian, etc; not British). Not much happens in it, and don’t bother submitting to an agent or publisher: first you have to write a proper novel and then, just maybe, if the novel sells, they’ll consider your other stuff.
short story: fiction’s poor relation. Not worth writing because no one prints them and even if they do (quote from Prospect magazine) ‘as all publishers know, collections of short stories sell woefully in Britain’.
Hmm. Alice Munro, anyone? There are a LOT more outlets for short stories – magazines, competitions – than for, well, novels. Besides: Chekhov, Maupassant, Borges, Schulz, Babel, Calvino, Cheever, Updike, Isak Dinesen, Mavis Gallant, Donald Barthelme, Raymond Carver, Aleksandar Hemon, Gianni Celati, Grace Paley, Alice Munro (again) – remember, you lot, first you have to write a NOVEL. Not to mention Lydia Davis. Miranda July.
On Sunday afternoon I took CBe books to an independent bookseller in south London. Two of his bestsellers last year (and probably ditto for most UK bookstores) were the new Ian McEwan and the new Alan Bennett, both of them novellas. (And if anyone wants to argue that the McEwan is in fact a novel, not a novella, can they please first tell me why the distinction matters.) He also imported copies of a book of short stories by an American writer he happens to like, and whom no one over here has heard of, and sold them all.
What’s going on here? A combination of many things. Unexamined received wisdom. The macho thing (He: ‘A novel, actually.’ She: ‘So tell me . . .’ As against: He: ‘A short story.’ She: ‘Oh.’ Turns away). The accountants and marketing folk at the same meeting as the editors: ‘If we’re selling this at £7.99, we’ve got to jump 200 pages . . .’ The fact that the big prizes – Booker, Orange, IMPAC – exclude anything shorter than a novel, as conventionally understood.
I’ve got nothing against the novel: 256 pages, justified text, beginning middle & ending, writers do amazing and wonderful things with that. But it’s not the only formula. Read the words, the sentences. Stop counting.
(PS: I would love to publish a new Dictionnaire des idées reçues, and hereby patent the intention. A single Flaubertian sensibility would be preferable, but random entries will be welcome and accumulated.)